Favorite blog posts, January 2019

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Decrescendo to zero

"Volume" by Jenn Durfey is licensed under CC BY

Woodwind players often struggle with decrescendos that quit too soon. (“Decrescendi” if you prefer.) It’s pretty disappointing to play a graceful phrase and have the last note end abruptly instead of fading down smoothly to zero.

There’s not a special technique to deploy in order to make successful decrescendos to niente. This delicate dynamic effect just exposes a common shortfall in the fundamentals of tone production. Correcting this makes good decrescendos possible.

Softer dynamics are produced on the woodwinds by shrinking the aperture (opening) in the embouchure. The flute has an independent aperture, which can be made smaller or larger at will. The aperture on reed instruments is built around the opening of the double reed, or the opening between the single reed and the mouthpiece. Reducing the aperture of the lips on reed instruments applies a slight pressure that squishes the reed closed a little, reducing its opening. (This is a lip movement, not a jaw movement).

As the opening is reduced, airflow into the instrument decreases. At a certain point there is no longer enough power to keep the reed or flute air jet vibrating, so it stops. Hopefully, this occurs at such a soft volume that it seems like the note faded away completely.

When the note ends too abruptly, check to make sure breath support isn’t decreasing with the decrescendo. Steady, powerful breath support as the aperture decreases equals an increase in air pressure. This keeps the reed vibrating as the opening and the volume decrease toward zero.

Consistent, strong breath support and a flexible, well-formed embouchure are the keys to successful decrescendos.

Observing woodwind playing objectively

"Woodwinds" by Michael @ NW Lens is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

I have my woodwind methods classes do a lot of observing of woodwind playing. They comment on each other’s woodwind playing in class, write concert/recital reports, and make written comments on each other’s playing exams (for my eyes only). This is a crucial skill for their future teaching careers.

I try to push them to keep their observations objective. But often the comments are things like:

  • “Your tone sounds really good.”
  • “Your articulation was sluggish.”
  • “So-so finger fluency.”

Remarks like this, especially if detached from technique observations or recommendations, are unhelpful but often also unfounded. “Good” tone is a difficult thing to pin down, even for a specialist in the instrument. Even my college woodwind-instrument majors usually haven’t done enough critical listening in their lifetime for me to fully trust their judgments of what tone is “good,” even on their own instrument.

I find it more helpful to the development of my students’ disciplined, precise teaching to hold them to a standard of objectivity. Tone isn’t inherently “good” or “bad.” (It might be more possible to effectively use a standard like “characteristic,” but even that requires some context.) But it’s fairly straightforward, and more useful pedagogically, to determine whether tone is, say, consistent.

Some better versions of the above observations might be:

  • “Your tone is consistent from note to note, and also seems characteristic of the instrument.”
  • “I hear a moment of air noise before each note, especially in the low register. Try increasing breath support to help each note respond immediately.”
  • “Your fingers seem to move quickly and confidently to most notes, but you seem to arrive late at the F-sharps. Let’s review that fingering.”

Keeping observations factual and non-judgmental makes lessons more efficient and targeted, and keeps lines of communication open for better teaching and learning.

Which college should I choose for music?

"Newnham College" by kaet44 is licensed under CC BY

“I want to be a flute major. Which college should I go to?” This is the kind of question that I often see asked on internet message boards, Facebook groups, and email threads. If you’re asking that question and people are giving you lists of schools, you probably shouldn’t take them too seriously. And if you’re answering someone else’s question by tossing out a recommendation, you might reconsider whether this is really helpful.

Interest in studying a subject isn’t nearly enough for anyone to give a reasonable recommendation of a college, university, or conservatory. Even a fairly detailed history of your prior teachers, repertoire studied, and competitions won probably only scratches the surface. Internet strangers are often happy to tell you what their favorite schools are, and many of them are probably genuinely high-quality programs. But if 20 people answer, you will probably get nearly 20 possibilities.

Here’s my best general advice for choosing a college for your music studies.

  • Consult your current private teacher. If you don’t have one, strongly consider getting one. (You will probably be competing for admissions and scholarships against people who have one!) This person is probably the one best suited to offer recommendations based on actual knowledge about you and about the wider world of your instrument.
  • Especially if you are planning to study music performance, the teacher of your instrument will be the most important figure in your college education. In a perfect world you would get to meet a bunch of flute (or whatever) professors, spend some time with each of them, take a lesson or two, and figure out who you like best, and then apply to the school they teach at. There’s a chance you have already encountered some of the nearby ones, maybe at a masterclass, a Flute Day, or when they visited your high school (to meet and recruit students like you!). If you’re able to do some travel, some others might be able to make time to meet you. At the very least, see if you can find recordings on YouTube or their personal or school website and see if they are someone you would like to learn to play like.
  • If you don’t already have some schools in mind, start nearby. If you live in the US, there is probably a state university that is sort of an unofficial flagship for music, and you won’t have to pay out-of-state tuition. These universities aren’t always the most nationally-known, name-brand music schools, but they generally have outstanding faculty and students, beautiful facilities, and everything else a large state school can offer. You probably won’t go wrong.
  • If your financial means and/or scholarship potential give you some more flexibility on location, great! You can add to your list your picks of the 50 flagship state-school music departments, or private universities or conservatories.
  • If you have some more specific goals about where you want to go, then definitely apply for those schools. But also have one or more solid backups. I auditioned at one school against 60 other players of my instrument. They only had room to accept 4 that year, so lots of very talented people didn’t get in. If you can fall back on a good state school, you will still get an excellent education, probably cheaper.
  • If you have reasons to stay close to home, accrue less debt, or maybe seek out a program with less stringent admissions, there are lots of small, regional universities (like mine!) that offer excellent educations. There’s a good chance that your nearest one has talented faculty, good ensembles, and lots of opportunities to learn. If they offer an accredited major in music, they will be able to offer all the classes and experiences you need for a quality music education, but they may lack some of the extras offered in a larger program.

Choosing a college is a big decision, but there are lots of high-quality options, and some of them are probably near you and relatively affordable. Good luck!